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Last week at First Things we were very happy to host Michael Novak and Paul Adams as they discussed their new book on social justice. One of the themes Novak and Adams touched on in their presentations was how poorly Americans today seem to understand the concept of social justice. On both left and right, the term has a lot of political weight, and attracts a lot of controversy. What is it about the idea of social justice that makes it so hard for us to get right?

Adams and Novak suggest we should think about social justice as a virtue. Virtues are characteristics of individual persons. Think of prudence—the ability to duly consider and direct the course of one's actions to achieve a good end. Prudence is a body of habits that exist, when cultivated, in individuals. Committees cannot have the virtue of prudence. Mobs cannot have prudence. This is because groups of people do not share a hive-mind or make choices collectively. Likewise with all the other virtues. Groups do not have virtues—individuals do.

But among the virtues, as Novak and Adams point out, justice and charity differ in this regard—both justice and charity have to do not merely with internal deliberation or the moderation of emotions, but with the state of relationships between persons. And justice especially stands out, because whereas charity “keeps no record of wrongs,” justice has to do with what is right or fair, and is based on the actual equity or proportionality in relations between persons. Thus the virtue of justice necessarily directs the individual to consider social realities.

If justice is an inherently social virtue, what's the difference between justice and social justice? Social justice is a particular aspect of justice, focusing on the conditions of equity in society at large, based on economic and political structures, rather than individual cases and particular persons: Are the punishments assigned by law proportionate to the crimes they punish? Are public resources being fairly distributed? Are workers being paid their due? These sorts of questions belong to social justice.

In a strictly hierarchical society, citizens and rulers have different concerns when it comes to social justice. For the common man, social justice directs his attention to the needs of his family and neighbors, his employees and business partners, and the life of his local community. For those charged with governing, justice involves also the allotment of punishments for crimes, the levying of taxes, the distribution of public goods, and whatever is necessary to keep the peace and promote the common good.

This layered distribution of care for order and justice in society is called “subsidiarity”. Hierarchical societies make it easy to employ subsidiarity: The common man is set over a few things, and looks after those few things; the ruling classes are set over more things, and look after correspondingly more things. Each person's duties vis-à-vis social justice are proportionate to his position in the social hierarchy.

Democratic societies are comparatively messy. Democracy is based on a leveling principle: before the law, all citizens are equal, and every voter's ballot counts the same. Because democracy eliminates the top-down order of things that makes subsidiarity work as a division of responsibilities for social justice, things get very confusing when we try to figure out who has care for whom in society. In a democracy, the rulers are elected by the people based on policy programs and campaign promises. The people, then, are the ultimate authority about what is needed to protect the peace and promote the common good. Concern for government and right order belongs not just to those at the top (since there is no “top”), but to everyone.

This is why democracies so desperately need well-educated citizens, and also why democratic societies tend to be much more politically engaged than non-democratic societies. Under a hierarchical regime, the common man has no business worrying about the public order at large or matters of state. His concern is limited to his own household and local affairs. But in a democracy, all of these questions—even the highest and most complex—are indirectly referred back to the people for judgment. And the political well-being of the state hangs on the soundness of that judgment.

The problem is that private individuals—occupied with domestic affairs, professions, and commerce—are not primed to think about the big picture of social order and justice in the state. They have neither the experience, nor the time, nor the incentive to go and investigate it. So when the people choose their rulers, and give those rulers (indirectly) a mandate to guide the administration of public affairs, this mandate is based not on the needs of society as an integral whole—not on the authentic common good—but on the competition of individual interests, with the largest interest groups predominating.

The hope, in a democratic system, is that the parochialism of voters will be counterbalanced by the efforts of politicians to build consensus during campaigns. Politicians want to have a strong base of public support, so they fuse as many interest groups as possible into a grand platform, which is representative of the people as a whole. This process works, to a great extent. We're witnessing it right now, as Bernie Sanders pushes for the votes of black women, and Donald Trump panders to evangelicals.

But even when democratic compromise works as it's supposed to, there is little guarantee of justice in the regimes it produces. Justice does not consist in giving everyone, as far as possible, whatever he wants, but in securing for each member in a community what is due to him. By basing public order on the arbitration of competing desires, democratic procedures risk neglecting the arbitration of competing rights. And by building a governing vision out of a patchwork of fragmentary interests and wishes, democratic governments risk losing track of the real constitution and integral order of society as a whole—which is the basic concern of social justice.

American democracy has borne much good fruit for the people of the United States. In many ways, as Adams and Novak suggest, the democratic culture of this country has produced a new spirit of local and domestic social justice. We have an abundance of social work programs, charities, and religious organizations bolstering the public order and helping to provide some guarantee of equity and common welfare in our cities. These institutions are strong, in part, because of the emphasis on individual self-government which goes along with democratic politics.

But democracy has its faults. If many on the political right in America can no longer make sense of social justice except as it concerns private action—if some on the left cannot distinguish it from bread and circuses for the people—perhaps this is because our form of government makes it so easy to forget that government exists not to mediate competing interests, but to promote the common good of the whole.

Today we have lost track of what justice means for our society at large. In a headless, democratic society, how can we relearn these things? Who will teach us the truth about the common good? Who will guide us in the paths of justice?

Elliot Milco is an editorial assistant at First Things.

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